Monday, February 23, 2009
Honk if you're hungry
I very recently returned to Los Angeles from my honeymoon in Maui. So recently, in fact, that I'm still on Hawaii time and can't seem to wake up before ten. That's the excuse, anyway.
Now, Hawaii isn't necessarily known for its groundbreaking cuisine. This is, after all, a place where you will find spam commonly offered on menus, especially as a breakfast meat option. They also eat poi, which is a paste made from mashed taro root, and kind of tastes like, well, paste.
When I tasted poi, I thought I was misunderstanding its use and immediately went home to research how it's intended to be eaten. Do you spread it on something? Is it like peanut butter, or humus? Surely you are supposed to add sugar or fruit or salt, or maybe even spam? My google search informed me that there are many devotees to this stuff, but, alas, it is what it is: a purplish mush that you eat with your fingers, and which, apparently, is an acquired taste. (Which is ironic, since the problem with poi is it seems to have no taste at all.)
Also, there is the plate lunch, the most common local meal, which can be found in strip malls everywhere (paradise is peppered with strip malls) and which universally consists of two mounds of unseasoned white rice, a mound of plain macaroni salad with mayonnaise, and a mound of some kind of meat, often in teriyaki form. It's cheap, and tastes exactly like you'd expect, but not quite as good.
On the other hand, there is the Hawaiian coffee. The glorious coffee. Kona's is best known, but Maui has some amazing beans, too. Medium, not too bitter, with a touch of sweetness. Hawaiian Village Coffee makes their espresso with Maui beans, and it totally made up for the spam and poi. As do the local Maui lagers, especially Bikini Blonde, and Honolua Lager.
And, of course, there are the pineapples and bananas and coconuts, and everything that is made with them. This is what I was in pursuit of.
Because we are white people and were on our honeymoon in Hawaii, we rented a soft-top Jeep.
With this Jeep, we decided to take the Road to Hana, an intensely winding road that takes you past (and sometimes through) waterfalls and all kinds of island-y things. It's that thing that every travel guide book tells you you MUST do... drive the 68-mile Road to Hana to see the magical waterfalls.
What the guidebooks don't tell you is what this road really is: a surreal acid trip full of rainbows and strange sights and smells and people selling food out of their houses. Think Salvador Dali meets Willy Wonka meets James Franco's character in Pineapple Express. Up to two-thousand tourists drive on this remote one-lane road every day, and with no real restaurants to speak of nearby, the handful of residents on this twisted trail have started selling food from their driveways. It's a way of life, and I imagine there aren't a lot of other (legal) ways to make a buck in the middle of a jungle.
The first spot we stopped at was on the North side of the island, and it promised us the Best Banana Bread on the Planet. For miles, we saw bright green, hand-painted signs counting down the miles -- "Julie's Best Banana Bread on the Planet, 2 mi ahead!" Keep in mind, on either side of our jeep's windows was nothing but jungle, lava rock, the occasional rusted Pontiac Grand Prix remains on an impossibly treacherous cliff...
..and banana trees. Which is why we followed the fluorescent signs all the way to this tiny shack in the middle of nowhere.
The banana bread was not the best on the planet, but it was warm and moist and tasted extra banana-y. What they should be advertising is their fresh coconut candy, which was chewy and spicy, and better than the banana bread.
For 12 hours and 68 miles, we drove on this road. Surrounded by tropical paradise, all I could notice were the kindergarten-quality signs at the bottom of people's driveways, inviting tourists up to their house to eat. Signs like "Chinese food Today!" And, "Mahi Mahi Tacos for sale!"
And then we hit pay dirt.
On a blind corner, at who knows which mile marker along this wild ride, we came upon Coconut Glen's Big Dumb Coconut Stand. Pulling into his driveway, we found a pile of wet lumber, a machete placed next to a mound of coconut shells, two dogs in the yard, and a cartoonish sign that spelled "Honk if You're Hungry."
We weren't sure what we'd gotten into. But before we could manage the 9-point turn out of the driveway, Glen came lollying down the driveway, Hawaiian-style: barefoot, shirt unbuttoned, scratching his beard with a smile and offering us "homemade, dairy-free, coconut candy ice cream."
We accepted (because we were in the man's driveway), and he disappeared back into his house while we waited nervously, not knowing what to expect. Eventually, Glen reappeared, making his way down the driveway with two glistening cones: single scoops of God Knows What.
"Five dollars a piece," he said.
Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction, in which Uma Thurman orders a $5 milkshake, and Travolta harasses her for it? This, this small scoop of possibly-poisoned, probably not homemade coconut candy ice cream was definitely worth five dollars.
It was creamy, but not thick on the tongue, so it was refreshing. It was slightly pink from the spices on the candy (similar to what we got from Julie at the banana bread stand), and was LOADED with tender chunks of fresh coconut. We (i.e. Paul) paid Glen the $10 and watched as he made his way back toward the house at his island pace, as we licked at our ice cream in bewilderment.
Was this ice cream for real? Was this an elaborate scam, and he was buying gourmet ice cream from a local purveyor and selling it for profit to the white people on their honeymoons who pulled their rental Jeeps into his driveway? Or was that barefoot, shirtless, bearded, Coconut Glen some kind of undiscovered ice cream genius?
Last night, I couldn't stop thinking about that candied coconut ice cream. In a fit of insomnia, I googled "Coconut Glen" and eventually found a semi-professional cooking video that he apparently made with a film student. As it turns out, Coconut Glen, our aleged hippy island drop out, is actually a classically-trained chef who has traveled the world perfecting his craft.
This was a revelation! That ice cream was real! It wasn't a scam, or an accident. Glen is living in the middle of a jungle, making ice cream out of the coconuts that grow in his front yard, and scooping it up to anyone who happens to be hungry enough to honk is or her horn from his driveway.
So now, I'm on a quest. A mission. I must find this Coconut Glen, and get that ice cream recipe. Given that I'm not completely certain there was running water or electricity on that part of the island, chances of email contact seem bleak. But I assure you, faithful reader(s), I will stop at nothing to find Coconut Glen and get that ice cream recipe. Even if I have to drive through 68-miles of waterfalls, spam and poi to get it.
Posted by Sara Reddy Coyne